The Corrida de São Silvestre - the story of Latin America's largest athletics event

The legacy of Cásper Libero can be found littered across São Paulo - his eponymous foundation, formed posthumously on strict instructions laid out in his will after his untimely death in an airplane crash in 1944, is responsible for the Gazeta media empire that includes TV networks, newspapers, internet providers and radio stations as well as the media & communications college named after him. As a young man in his 20s, the ambitious journalist bought the small and ailing A Gazeta evening news sheet and would go on to transform the small paper into one of the countries most successful media conglomerates.

Lesser known is that the media tycoon is also credited with creating Latin America’s main international athletics event - the Corrida Internacional de São Silvestre (Saint Sylvester Road Race) - having come up with the idea for the long-distance race after a trip to Paris where he was inspired by watching a night time marathon through the city where the runners carried torches. He decided to launch something similar in his home city of São Paulo to help promote his new sports newspaper A Gazeta Esportiva and the inaugural race occurred on the final night of the year on December 31, 1925, a day also known as the day of Saint Sylvester in the Catholic calendar.

Corrida São Silvestre
Corrida de São Silvestre

The first race had only 60 applicants with 48 actually showing up on the day and the winner was local footballer turned runner Alfredo Gomes, who completed the 8.8km course in a time of 33 minutes and 21seconds. In the previous year of 1924, Alfredo had become the first black Brazilian to compete in the Olympics and carried Brazil’s flag into the opening ceremony in Paris, France. He kept in shape courtesy of his job working for a Brazilian telephone company where he would check the cables that crossed the steep hills and thick forests of the nearby Serra do Mar while running.

Alfredo Gomes

Alfredo Gomes

Alfredo Gomes

Up until 1945 the race was open only to Brazilian nationals or immigrants residing in the city and in 1953 the corrida cemented its place in the international long-distance running calendar after the most famous runner of the era, and arguably of all time, Emil Zátopekparticipated and won the race. In fact, it would take 34 years until a Brazilian would win the event again with José João da Silva from Pernambuco eventually winning twice in the 1980s. In 1975 women were invited to compete for the first time. 

José João da Silva wins the corrida ending a 34 year drought for Brazil

José João da Silva wins the corrida ending a 34 year drought for Brazil

By 1988 the race was still nocturnal with the 11.30pm start allowing for a unique finish to usher in the new year but 1989 saw substantial changes in the race's format in order to comply with the rules of the IAAF and to become internationally sanctioned. The time of the race was altered to the afternoon, the course direction was reversed, and men and women, who used to run together, had their races separated.

Corrida de São Silvestre
Corrida de São Silvestre

In 1991, the length of the race was then extended to 15km (the distance for the event used to vary almost yearly, usually between 6.5 km and 8.8 km). In 2011 the finish line was moved from its traditional spot outside the imposing Edificio Gazeta on São Paulo's most famous thoroughfare Avenida Paulista and to the Oscar Niemeyer designed Ibirapuera park

Remarkably, and unlike most events as old or older, the race has not been interrupted or suspended once during its history, not even for the duration of World War II.

Today, tens of thousands of people of men, women and children participate in the race and the winners list reads like a who’s who of global running legends including Paul Tergat and Rosa Mota.